Soooo....we're back in Astana now. I have mixed feelings about this, to put it mildly, particularly in light of some of the annoyances I found waiting for me.
That being said, the trip back went reasonably well, with no flight cancelations or delays. This was a pleasant contrast to the trip I wrote about here. It was also a departure (ha, ha) from our first trip out here last August, in which the following transpired:
1. We had a good deal of excess luggage, many pieces of which turned out to be overweight.
2. I dropped to the ground at the ticket counter, frantically moving items from one bag to another in attempt to redistribute above mentioned excess weight, and exposing my packed undies for the world to see in the process.
3. Our initial flight from Raleigh to Washington-Dulles was cancelled.
4. We flew from Raleigh to Washington-National, collected our immense collection of luggage and took a (large) cab to Washington-Dulles.
5. We checked in again with Turkish Airlines at Washington-Dulles, only to learn that my carry-on piece of luggage was overweight. Prior to that day, I was under the impression that airlines cared only about the volume of carry-on luggage, and that as such, it was an ideal place for small but heavy items.
A lot of these sorts of travel-related annoyances are obviously out of our hands, but here are a few things that probably contributed to making this trip out here easier. Unfortunately, they all cost some money, but I think they were all ultimately worth it.
1. Luggage Scale. Why on earth didn't I have a luggage scale last summer when we first came out here? Good question! Answer: Because I didn't feel like forking over all of about $25 to get one. I also thought (erroneously, as it turns out) that I would be able to estimate the weight of my luggage better. On previous trips that have required a lot of luggage, it was all I could do to lift a 50-pound bag. So I thought that if I could lift my suitcases relatively comfortably, they must be under fifty pounds. It turns out that my lifting of wimp-weights at the gym must have had an effect because it turned out that I could semi-comfortably lift quite a bit more. Anyway, after last summer's debacle, we bought a luggage scale when we were home for Christmas, and I would say it was definitely worth the price to not have to crawl around on the airport floor rearranging things in my bags.
2. Luggage Storage at the Vienna Airport. Shockingly enough, there are not multiple flights every day between Vienna and Astana. As a result, we had about a 12-hour layover in Vienna on our way back to Kazakhstan. We had already decided that we would go into the city for part of that time, but we were sort of dreading lugging our carry-on bags. However, once we arrived in the Vienna airport, Scott asked an employee, and it turned out they had luggage storage! I don't know exactly what the fee structure was, but we paid 16 euros to store two small rolling bags and two backpacks for several hours.
This is the first time we've gone into a city during a layover, so I have no idea if other airports offer this service or not, but it is certainly something I will look for in the future. We were very happy to see Vienna again, but what with being exhausted from travel and it being a hot outside, walking around would have been nearly impossible if we'd been encumbered with our stuff.
3. The Airport Lounge. I've only had one previous experience with airport lounges, which I wrote about here. That experience was free, which makes a lot of difference. What made Scott and I start thinking about airport lounges again was the length of our layover in Vienna. We had been thinking about checking into a hotel near the airport for showers and naps, but the best candidate for that was fully booked. Plus, since it was far enough away to require a shuttle from the airport, it probably would have complicated our scheme to get both some shower/rest time and some time in Vienna.
I think airport lounges vary in both policies and amenities, but the ones in Vienna had showers and let anyone in for a fee. We paid 25 euros per person (with a slight discount for our choice of credit card). This fee got us showers, free (and pretty decent) wi-fi, unlimited food and drink, and a comfy place to rest. After many, many hours of travel--and with the addition of free food--it seemed like money well spent.
We purposely decided to not have much time back in Astana before starting to work again, so we wanted to make the trip as restful as humanly possible so we could hit the ground running when we returned. Scott and I were talking earlier about how when we were in graduate school and were doing quite a bit of international travel, we never would have spent money on any of these things. Times and circumstances have changed, though. We're both obviously older, for one thing. The other thing is that studying or doing research in a country of your choice (particularly one where you speak the language) is a very different activity from returning to your place of work in a country you didn't exactly choose where you don't speak the language. The first set of circumstances is usually exciting....the second set of circumstances is remarkably like returning to any other job after a vacation, but with the added difficulties of being outside your home country. In the end, as surprising as it would have been to my 25-year-old self, my 35-year-old self is perfectly willing to consider anything that might make life and travel easier, even when it comes with a price tag.